‘Billie the Dragon Slayer’, Alexandra Grunberg

Illustrations © 2019 Toeken

 [ Sculptures, © 2019 Toeken ] Dragons did not seem so terrible in the old stories. Or, maybe they were terrible, but it was a terribleness in the past tense. It was a horror that had already happened, preparing you for the real story of a heroic knight who would kill the beast rather quickly, if not painlessly. The story never went into the details of why the dragon was so infamous, but no one ever questioned the dragon’s infamy.

Billie did not question the dragon’s infamy. She trusted that knights would not go after a boring creature, and the pictures in the retired wizard’s old books looked frightening enough, even if they did not really scare. How could they? It was art, and art was boring, at least for Billie. Not that she saw much art. She was more familiar with the corn in her brother’s fields.

She liked the corn. She used to like the dragons.

She imagined riding atop her gallant steed and piercing its fiery heart. Perhaps that was why she was so unprepared, why they were all so unprepared. When you read the story, you imagine yourself as the knight, and you forget that you are just an extra, a forgotten character in a forgotten prologue. You are not there to kill the beast. You are there to burn.

The dragon was much scarier than the retired wizard’s pictures, and it did much more damage than Billie could have ever imagined. The cornfield was still on fire, though Billie’s brother and his wife were doing their best to douse and stomp out the flames. Their house fared a little better. Most of the other houses did not. There were children crying in the street, though Billie doubted their tears could contain the flames that still rose on whatever bale of hay they could latch on to. There were men and women trying hard to be brave, though Billie supposed it was harder to brave on your own than from the back of a gallant steed. She saw the prologue to the stories, and it was not very magical, and should not have been a passing phrase: “the frightening dragon” who “terrorized the villagers.” Like they were just a trope to discard.

Billie was confused and sad, and when she was confused and sad, a story usually helped.

And the retired wizard had the best stories.

Billie left the smoke and the confusion and headed down the singed path into the forest.

The retired wizard lived in a hut in the middle of the forest. Billie knew she was getting close when she began to see the sculptures of the wizard’s collection. The first one that always caught her eye was the hunched ogre, because he was so large and stood right in the middle of the path. She always belatedly looked over her left shoulder to see the top half of the stone gopher popping out of his gopher hole, well hidden in the shrubs off the side of the path. It was the true first statue, though always the second seen. As she walked closer, the statues became more frequent and more tightly packed together; a fairy almost taking flight, an elf in the process of raising her bow and grabbing for an arrow, a unicorn reared on its hind legs, a dog with one ear flipped inside out.

Billie gave the dog’s head a pat as she squeezed by, apologizing to anything she bumped into.

The retired wizard’s door was open. It usually was. Though he always grumbled when she came by, Billie thought the wizard liked visitors. She thought he might be lonely. She would be lonely, if she lived all on her own. Billie stuck her head inside.

“Mr. Wizard?”

“I’m retired!”

Billie shut the door behind her and wiped her feet on the faded welcome mat. There was more soot than she expected, but Billie was not surprised. Her sister-in-law always scolded that Billie was never aware of how much dirt and debris she carried on her. Billie thought being too clean was a sign that a person never went on any adventures, or else they only went on clean adventures, and if your adventures are clean you might as well not adventure at all. Billie did not really adventure at all, but she hoped that people who saw her in all her mucked-up glory would suppose she was a great adventurer.

“Why are you dressed in ashes?” asked the retired wizard.

He had not gotten up from his lounge chair, an overstuffed affair that swallowed most of his spindly body. One languid wrist turned in steady circles while a distant spoon in a distant tea cup copied his motions. Billie pretended she was not impressed.

“There was a dragon.”

“Ah,” said the wizard. “I had a dragon. Bring me my tea.”

His wrist drooped and the spoon clattered to the floor. Billie walked inside, carefully picking up the hot cup and bringing it to the rapidly sinking man.

“What kind of dragon was it?” asked the wizard.

“The usual kind,” said Billie, taking a seat on the floor, legs crossed.

“What’s a ‘usual dragon?’ They come in all types,” huffed the wizard, struggling to bring his tea to his lips, but succeeding despite his difficulties.

“Well,” said Billie. “It was a big flying one, with shiny green scales. And it breathed fire over everything.”

“Ah,” said the retired wizard. “The usual kind.”

“If I was a knight, I could have stopped it.”

“How many knights do you think get charred in the process of one knight becoming a legend?” asked the retired wizard. “You probably would have been the fodder that makes a dragon fearsome, not the hero that gets praised in ballads.”

He turned down his head, letting his thick glasses fall to the tip of his nose as he peered at Billie.

“There are very few girl knights, anyway,” he continued.

“I’m not a girl!” Billie protested.

She did not connect with those dainty ladies in the stories, hiding in towers. She saw herself through the eyes of the one wielding the sword.

The wizard continued to scrutinize her.

“Perhaps you’re right. But you’re much too small to be a knight. You’d have to be at least two heads taller. And it would not hurt to have two heads. It would be better to have two heads than be a knight. When knights get old, they slip up, they make mistakes, and then they have to retire and they’re not a knight anymore. A two-headed person has two heads for life.”

The retired wizard frowned and sipped his tea, his light gray eyes turning a much deeper stormy gray. That always happened when he talked about retiring. It helped to make him talk about something else.

“Tell me a story,” said Billie.

“I’m tired. Maybe some other time. What kind of story?”

“Tell me a story about your dragon. Your unusual dragon.”

“It was an unusual dragon,” said the retired wizard, raising himself slightly out of his cushioned hole. “Very unusual…”

I don’t know how the egg got into my workshop. Maybe one of my apprentices was making a joke. A poor sort of joke, a dangerous one, but that’s apprentices for you. There’s a reason most of them don’t last very long.

I had never seen an egg like that in my life, but I knew it was a dragon egg, despite its unusual appearance. Most dragon eggs are the size of a small cat, or a large cauldron, or the kind of soft egg occasionally laid by cursed cows, but this egg was the size of an apple. But it was nothing like an apple, mostly the deep black of coal, swirled all around with a silver that sparkled like sunlit mist. I thought about crushing it, but I’ve always found it hard to destroy pretty things. That’s why I have such a large collection of cursed mirrors. Though the mirrors ended up not being nearly as much trouble as this small smoky egg.

I saw that egg, and I thought about the ashy remains left by a fire-breathing dragon. A dragon’s secrets can be divined through its shells. But I was wrong. I should have thought of the stony remains left by a dragon. An unusual dragon.

I was lucky that I was off the day it hatched. Off somewhere, I don’t know, maybe trying to find a new apprentice. No, no, that’s not right, because I did not know I needed one yet. I did not know that until I came home and saw the slivered remains of the cracked open shell and the frozen remains of my apprentice.

Turned completely to stone.

That vacant expression carved on his face for all eternity.

He might still be outside somewhere. Perhaps beside that clump of trolls. He blends in well with them.

Yes, he was the first, but he was not the last. All of those creatures outside, whether they were coming to attack me for some magical crime or coming to just pay a visit, they were all turned to stone. All of their frozen gazes pointed down, down to something small that must have crawled up to them unannounced, and they looked down, looked down into its eyes before they realized that was a horrible idea.

Most new places are best explored with a blindfold and a guide.

Every full moon, I would find another small dark egg in my workroom, usually tucked somewhere warm by the fire. Whenever I found it, I would smash it under my boot, no matter how pretty it was. Don’t look so horrified. I was doing the world a favor. My little dragon was doing enough harm on its own. It did not need any companions to multiply the chaos. It was turning something to stone almost every day!

I didn’t really mind. Though I tried to rein in the potential damage that would be caused by multiple dragons, I actually enjoyed the little monster’s activities. I can’t stand company. Yours excluded. Yours, and one other young lady’s.

She always came looking for stories, though I had fewer stories back then. I was still making them. But she came to gawk at the statues, and gawk at my mirrors, and gawk at me. She listened, the perfect audience, acute and quiet. She was not like you. She did not ask questions. I liked it then. I did not see the point in questions. I do now.

She did not know about my unusual dragon, and I did not tell her. Maybe I did not want to scare her away. Even if she suspected that a wizard’s workshop was a dangerous place, she continued to come, long after she was grown. She continued to come even after she was married. She continued to come even after she had a son, a loud thing, too large as a baby waddling around my workshop, too large when he ran away, a teenager who thought he was in love. She continued to come even when she had a second child, perhaps born to console her in the wake of her son’s abandonment, a baby girl, who always seemed too little. Perhaps I should have told her to stop coming. But I liked the company. That’s not much of an excuse, but I liked her company.

One full moon, I came home late. My apprentice had lost a few limbs, and it took longer than usual growing them back. He was a squirmer. The first thing I did was march straight toward the fireplace, ready to stomp, but there was no egg. I looked all over the workshop, but there was no egg. Maybe my little dragon had died. Or maybe it just didn’t lay an egg this month. But I had a bad feeling. I could say it was magic, but it was just a hunch, a normal human hunch stemming from probability and guilt.

I knew where the lady lived, though I had never visited. I keep tabs on everyone I meet. It only takes a stray hair, a forgotten glove. The door was open, so I let myself in, and the first thing I noticed were the slivers of shell on the ground, dark as coal and swirled with mist. I don’t know why that caught my eye before the two human statues made of stone. Maybe because I did not want to see her, frozen, eyes gazing down, down to something she maybe thought was a gift and turned out to be a curse.

Her husband’s eyes were wide, shocked, but her eyes were calm. Her stance was calm, even with one arm stretched out, stretched over a little basinet. I was scared that I would find a stone baby, frozen dead before its life could even properly begin. I peeked into the basinet, and I saw the still flesh-and-blood baby girl. Well, I saw most of her. I could not see her eyes, blocked by her mother’s arm. A human blindfold.

I lifted the baby out of the crib, and I felt something twine around my ankle. I put my hand over the baby’s eyes, and lifted my boot, ready to stomp on the dragon.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Billie.

“A child had lost her mother that night,” said the retired wizard. “I did not want a different mother to lose her child.”

“Oh,” said Billie. “Did they find each other? The mother dragon and its child?”

“Yes,” said the retired wizard. “They still visit sometimes. Leaving more statues in their wake. We have nice chats.”

“They can talk?” asked Billie.

“No, but they understand when I do, and I can understand them well enough without them talking. For the most part.”

“What do they talk about?”

“I think… I think they feel bad,” said the retired wizard. “At least, I still feel bad.”

Billie rubbed her hands on her trousers for something to do. The wizard did not look so old, now. He looked almost like a child. Like a child who was about to cry. Billie thought she should say something, anything to stop him from being upset.

“I thought we were supposed to slay dragons,” said Billie. “That’s what happens in all the stories.”

“Knights slay dragons,” growled the retired wizard, setting his empty tea cup on the arm of his chair. “I was a wizard, not a knight. You are a little girl, not a knight. Go home, now. I’m tired. I’m very tired.”

Billie got up and brushed herself off, surprised that she managed to accrue more dirt just sitting on the floor. Maybe listening to the story counted as having an adventure. It felt a little like an adventure to Billie, though the hero was beginning to fall asleep as he sunk back into his lounge chair.

“I don’t think we could slay this dragon, anyway,” said Billie.


“You can’t just stomp on a giant fire breathing dragon,” she said. “Slaying big dragons is a lot harder. A lot more dangerous.”

The retired wizard was frowning, and Billie was not sure if he was mad at her, or if he was mad at all. Maybe he was upset. Or maybe he was sad.

“If you want to beat a fire-breathing dragon, you need to be more dangerous than a fire-breathing dragon,” said Billie.

“Do you think you could ever be more dangerous than a fire-breathing dragon?” asked the retired wizard, and he did not sound mad.

“I think I’d have to be at least two heads bigger,” said Billie, smiling.

“Shut the door on your way out!”

It was more crowded in her brother’s home than usual. She had to slip into bed with him and her sister-in-law. The dairyman and his two kids were in her bed, and there were other people lying on the floor. Billie was lucky, she supposed, because their house still had a roof, and they still had most of their house. But with everyone snoring around her, she did not feel very lucky.

“Sissy?” Billie whispered.

She used to call her sister-in-law “mother,” when she was a baby. But when she was a little bigger than a baby, her sister-in-law made her stop. Billie was not sure why. Sissy could not have children, or at least, she could not hold them inside of her long enough for them to become real babies. Billie thought she might like having someone call her “mother,” but it just made Sissy upset, and Billie tried her best not to make people upset.

“Yes?” whispered Sissy.

“Why do I live with you and brother?”

“The retired wizard brought you to us,” said Sissy.


“Maybe he thought we were lonely.”

Billie thought that was not so bad, to be brought into the world so someone did not have to feel lonely. She thought it would be better to be brought into the world to slay dragons.

“Was he a retired wizard back then, too?” asked Billie.

“No,” said Sissy. “He was a wizard when he brought you here. He retired when he left.”

Someone was snoring, and someone else was muttering under their breath. If the dragon came back and burned down their house, where would everybody sleep?


She did not answer. The breath of her sister-in-law and brother was heavy and even. They were lost in their dreams, maybe dreaming of a knight who would come and slay the dragon. But Billie did not know any knights. They had never passed through town before. By the time word of the dragon reached the nearest tournament, or wherever knights gathered to compete and joust, the dragon might destroy everything and everyone. The mutterer settled down, but Billie’s mind did not. Everyone was sleeping and sighing and whimpering like it was the end of the story. The story had not yet begun. But with a dragon hidden somewhere, ready to attack at any moment, the story felt like it was already over for all of them.

The story could not end with the prologue.

Billie remembered that when she was little, very little, she would sleep during the boring parts of a story, waiting for the action to begin. Maybe she could not make the action happen, but she was hoping she could speed up the prologue. She knew she was very small and only had one head. But with the wizard, she could have two, even if his head was muddled and covered in wrinkles.

Billie slipped out of bed, leaving the town sleeping behind her.

“Mr. Wizard?”

There was no response.

“Mr. Retired Wizard?”

Billie stepped through the open door, wiping her feet on the matt, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. When they did, she had to slap a hand over her mouth to block a scream. There was someone standing in the middle of the wizard’s house, someone tall with long arms, and she was so used to seeing him disappearing into his chair that it took Billie longer than she would have liked to admit to realize that it was the wizard himself. Or, it used to be him. Because this wizard was not flesh and blood.

Billie tiptoed forward, not sure who she was trying not to disturb, and laid a tentative hand against the wizard’s chest. Solid stone.

“I guess you’re really retired now.”

Billie let her hand graze across his chest, to his shoulder, following his arm all the way down to a long, pointing finger. For a moment, she thought it was pointing to his discarded tea cup, and she lifted it up, the familiar ceramic comforting, even if it was no longer warm. But there was an object behind the tea cup, resting over the arm of the chair, a thin dark piece of fabric. A blindfold.

Something twined around Billie’s ankle. She dropped the tea cup, and it shattered on the ground.

Billie squeezed her eyes shut and lifted her foot, ready to stomp. But she didn’t. She couldn’t.

The usual dragon was dangerous. But she knew of a couple unusual dragons who were more dangerous.

And with them, she was technically two heads bigger.

Billie kept her eyes shut as she groped for the blindfold, grasping the soft fabric and wrapping it tightly over her eyes. She could not even open them if she tried. She felt the dragons move from her feet. Something thin, a tail, maybe, flicked her left ankle, and she shuffled to her left. It flicked her ankle again, and a wet snout nudged the back of her left foot, so she kept moving. And the dragons kept prodding.

She stumbled in the doorway, and a little again when they led her off the path, but she did better than she would have imagined she could while blinded in the dark, being led by dragons. It was easier when she stopped trying to guess where they would lead her and just gave in to their direction, when she stopped worrying they would guide her into a tree and just trusted their guidance. She tried not to think of anything at all but the little flick of the tail and nudge of the nose. It was better than thinking, because thinking meant thinking of the old man, now frozen stone, or Sissy and her brother waking up and finding her gone, or the dragon—

But she supposed it was okay to think about the dragon. That was what this adventure was all about.

If you could call it an adventure. It was not very thrilling, as far as stories go. Adventures in the stories were supposed to be fun. But maybe they were only fun for the knights and scary for who preceded the knights.

She wondered how the unusual dragons knew where to lead her. She wondered, until she smelled the smoke.

She did not know where she was, just that they had walked far away from the forest, and they had walked upward for a very long time on a steep incline. She felt small bushes and shrubs rub against her legs, but now she felt them crumble at the contact with her skin, leaving a thick smudge of soot on her shins and calves. It was still warm. She thought about stopping, stopping and letting someone bigger than her continue, but the unusual dragons were still nudging her onward, and so she went. She tried to tell herself she was in a story. And nothing bad could happen if it was just a story. The worst thing would be if the story was boring, and then she would fall asleep, and then she would wake up to Sissy’s embrace and she would go running through the woods, and she would visit the wizard—

 [ Warm stone, © 2019 Toeken ] At first, she thought the dragons stopped because she took a wrong step. And it may not have been wrong, but it was definitely a weird step. The ground beneath her feet was no longer charred grass, but smooth stone. Very warm stone. But it was very warm in general, very warm all around her, all over her skin. But not all the time. Just in steady gusts of air. Steady gusts of breath. Of fiery, dragon breath.

Billie was glad she could not see. She was glad she could not see the large head coming closer as the gusts became harder to withstand, nearly pushing her over as she struggled to stay straight and upright, like a hero, like a knight, like someone two heads taller. Because she was, technically two heads bigger. The little claws stepping over her feet into two small, identical weights were proof of that. And the gusts fell lower on her body, lower as they drifted down past her face, lower further as they drifted down her legs to her feet.

And then they stopped.

The small weights lifted from her feet and she heard them scamper in front of her, scamper further and further away until she could not hear them anymore. When she could no longer even hear their echo, Billie reached up, and slowly removed her blindfold.

Her hand, too busy clutching the blindfold, could not block the scream before it leapt from her mouth. Two large eyes stared at her, two large gray eyes. Solid gray eyes. Billie stopped screaming when she realized they were stone. The whole dragon was stone, though she could not see much of it besides its large head, larger than her body. She backed away slowly, backing out of the soot covered cave, not wanting to turn from the monster even though she was sure it could not hurt her. Then she remembered that there was still something in the cave that could hurt her, and it might be better to turn her back on them. So she turned her back and she ran, covered from head to toe in the soot of adventure.

It was almost morning, and Billie rushed to be back before her brother and Sissy woke up. She rushed to be back before anyone else woke up, before the sun woke up, and the birds and the trees woke up. There was no knight coming down the path, riding his gallant steed on his way to save them, but they no longer needed saving. Billie rushed to be back in the story before she missed the beginning of it, because it was about to begin, everyone’s story was about to begin because of her.

© 2019 Alexandra Grunberg

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